Why Happiness?

(From “Happiness and Culture: Special Topics Proposal” by Vida Penezic)

  1. Introduction: Why Happiness?

The psychologist and entrepreneur Tal Ben-Shahar argues that everything we do or want to have (material success, family, good time with friends, certain body shape) we do or want because we think it will make us happy. Happiness is the “ultimate currency”. (Aristotle famously wrote: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”) In other words, the desire for happiness is potentially among the most significant forces in any culture. 

There are very few goals more important to us than happiness and very few things that motivate us more strongly to action. You can get us to do, buy, create, accomplish, watch, attend almost anything if the promised payoff is happiness. Conversely, if you want your product (movie, book, TV show, event, website) to be popular and/or to sell, you will want your product to make us feel happy (one way or another).

Although happiness (also called subjective wellbeing) is a universal human emotion, the definitions of happiness, how one should go about acquiring it, as well who has the right to pursue it, vary with changing cultural values, political ideologies, religious views, historical periods, etc.. For example, in the Western Civilization, prior to the 17th century happiness was considered to be a matter of “luck, virtue, or divine favor,”  and therefore reserved for the very few.  This changed with the Enlightenment and the rise of democratic ideas: happiness became a human right.  Now everyone had a right to be happy.

As in the case of most universal human traits, the attitudes and beliefs about happiness (as well as our ability to access it) are partially shaped by the beliefs and values of the culture in which we live, including by the specific position we occupy in that culture, such as our gender, ethnicity, class status, minority/majority status, etc. For example, in the US in the 1950s, a middle class woman was supposed to be happy as a homemaker with no out-of-the-home interests. If she wasn’t, that was viewed as an emotional disorder. Today, this is not the case. With changed cultural values and societal needs, this view of happiness changed as well.

Even within the same period,  the views on happiness are diverse. A cursory examination of our cultural milieu, for example, reveals different guidelines for achieving happiness. The science-based view described below suggests a path that often resembles a combination of psychotherapy and Eastern philosophical practices (mindfulness, self-awareness, incremental improvement, change in attitude, etc.). The more traditional US cultural beliefs hold that success, material possessions, or marriage will bring happiness. Beer commercials show young people dressed in cool clothing having fun with friends in beautiful locales, clearly experiencing positive emotions: laughing, dancing, flirting. Many happy endings in movies include finding a partner (boy gets girl, girl gets boy) as well as a public triumph over adversity (e.g., winning a game you entered as an underdog, while being cheered by a large audience, or getting married in front of a large number of admiring applauding guests).  

Happiness (as a goal, a reward, a right, a subject of creative and scholarly works, a tool for success, a promise, a state of mind, an image, a practice, etc.) permeates all facets of American culture. The belief that everyone has a right to be happy is a bedrock belief and a core value. The pursuit of happiness is one of our three unalienable rights, the right to it is one of the truths that we consider to be self-evident. 

But what are we pursuing with the expectations of finding happiness? Why pursue that and not something else? Does the path we choose really lead to happiness? Or is it a blind alley? (Our culture outlines a number of paths that ostensibly lead to happiness—success, material possessions, marriage—but there are numerous examples of people who followed them without finding happiness.) Does the path you chose serve your interests or someone else’s interests? What role (if any) do cultural, social, and economic forces play in determining what we (are encouraged to?) pursue as happiness?  How are attitudes about happiness formed and disseminated? What role do they play in our cultural production and consumption? How (and why) do these views align with various social and economic forces? Is one view more dominant than others and why?  Are the portrayals of happiness (and the paths that lead to it) uniform throughout a culture or do they differ by gender, age, ethnicity, and other factors? Why? All these and many other questions about happiness are within the purview of popular culture studies. 

The problem with studying happiness in a systematic way, however, has always been that it appeared to be a nebulous concept, extremely subjective in nature, and that it didn’t lend itself to scientific study. At least that was the case until relatively recently. 

Over the past few decades, a number of  scientific disciplines in the US (psychology, neuroscience, economics, etc.) have decided that happiness, considering it to be a valid subject of scientific study and started using the scientific method to learn more about it.  It turned out that the “good times” (the moments of happiness/subjective wellbeing experienced by different individuals) have common characteristics that can be described, measured, and taught. This gave rise to a science-based view of happiness, acceptable to the mainstream educational and other institutions.

A whole happiness industry has emerged that propagates this science-based, scholastic, approach to finding happiness: it teaches multitudes of people to be happy in a certain way and with certain things.⁠1 Millions of people pursue happiness within this framework. Happiness (often under the banner of Positive Psychology) is taught at elite, mainstream educational institutions, such as Harvard and Berkley, in K-12 schools (e.g., Project Happiness), at work (as workplace-based happiness trainings), and by numerous self-help books and self-improvement websites, many (but by no means all) run by well-regarded institutions and scholars. Institutes (e.g., Global Center for Resiliency and Wellbeing, at the Mayo Clinic), conferences (e.g., Happiness and Its Causes), books (e.g., Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar), apps, executive happiness coaches, Forbes articles, etc., are also concerned with the subject.  They all teach, research, or report on the research about happiness. Even a superficial internet search for happiness instruction reveals a mixture of research findings, scholarly claims, how-to websites, and financial schemes, all teaching/selling/promoting an approach to happiness that is very seductive because it puts greater happiness within everyone’s reach.  In fact, this approach is so widespread that it has become a popular culture phenomenon in itself.

A simplified version of this view can be summarized as follows:

1. Happiness is “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” (Lyubomirsky) In other words, to be happy we need both positive emotions and meaning/purpose.  Both positive emotions and meaning/purpose are, for lack of a better word, judgment-based. That is, they involve a judgment that an experience is positive, or that our life is going as it should (B. Fredrickson). [While most of us know what makes us feel good, the path to meaning/purpose is a lot more complex and potentially more susceptible to the influence of the socio-cultural values and beliefs.]

2. Anyone can learn to be happier. Biology (50%) and circumstances (10%) determine only about 60% of our happiness levels; the rest depends on our choices and behavior. “Good life can be taught.” That is, we can be taught how to increase our supply of positive emotions and how to make our life more meaningful. 

To me, these findings seem useful to popular culture scholars in at least three ways.

1. They provide a science based, concrete definition of happiness that can serve as a basis for further discussion and inquiry.

2. They inspire a question: If happiness is 40% learned, what role does popular culture play in this process?

3. They open the door to cross cultural examination of happiness that goes beyond anecdotal or ethnographic.  Does everyone everywhere find happiness in this combination of positive emotions and meaning? Does this definition of happiness apply evenly to everyone, regardless of their status? Why and/or why not?  [There have been some studies that compare/contrast views on happiness in more than one culture—mostly focusing on the American and Asian cultures. They show how valuable further research in this direction would be.]

As mentioned above, the desire for happiness has an enormous power to shape not only our behavior, but also the cultural products we are offered, the popular events and rituals we participate in, our life and career choices, and so on. Consequently, the definitions of happiness (e.g., whether it is inherited or learned, what it means to be happy, or what is the appropriate way to show happiness), portrayals of happiness (e.g., images of people experiencing happiness—while driving a new car, taking care of children, or publically triumphing over adversity—that we find in the popular media), and the expectations that happiness would result from certain actions and achievements but not from others, all potentially have a considerable cultural impact.

If nothing else, the popular portrayals of happiness might serve as powerful guidelines for our own pursuit of happiness; they might also serve as the markers of our personal happiness achievements, even though we may not be aware of this. It is quite possible that, having been exposed to certain images of happiness when we were very young, many of us adopted them as “true” before we had the chance to properly understand their efficacy, their ideological and other implications, or to critically examine them.  (Ellen Langer, in her discussion of mindsets that form without much reflection, refers to this process as “premature cognitive commitment”.)  Later in life, we recognize these as images of happiness without quite knowing why. This might be especially true if the same views of happiness are consistently presented across media, genres, disciplines, professions, and cultures. 

Even at this very simple (and very simplistic) level, our cultural portrayals of happiness might have a real, concrete, powerful impact on our lives—and that is before we have addressed the popular culture’s version of what comes first the proverbial chicken or the proverbial egg: Does popular culture reflect the world we live in or does it affect it?  

Or does it do something else entirely?

In short, happiness is an important ingredient in culture and culture is an important ingredient in happiness; therefore, the relationship between happiness and culture is a worthy subject of study for (popular) culture scholars.

Just like in the late 1990s, the discipline of psychology began seeing happiness not only as the absence of misery but also as a phenomenon in its own right, with characteristics that can be studied, measured, and taught, those of us who study (popular) culture might see happiness not just as an inexplicable feeling of wellbeing that overwhelms us when we see certain images of fun, joy, goodness, etc., on our screens, but as an important cultural force in its own right, at least partly responsible for those images in the first place.  The fact that certain images make us feel good might not be accidental. It is even less of an accident that those very images are offered as a reward if we (that is, the characters on the screen) buy a certain product, achieve certain things, or make certain life choices.

Culture scholars are uniquely positioned to study happiness as a part of the larger cultural context in which it occurs. They can trace its portrayals, definitions, and impact across the cultural landscape, offer critical analyses,⁠2 and/or explore the interdependences between attitudes about happiness and other social, economic and cultural forces in society.

The PCA/ACA national conference, with its interdisciplinary reach and its interest in a vast variety of cultural phenomena seems to be an ideal venue for the special topic Happiness and Culture. This is the place to explore the questions such as: What do those who study advertising, movies, body culture, vehicle culture, beer culture, film, television, internet, etc.,  have to say about the role of their subjects in our notions of happiness?  How about those directly involved in the popularization of the latest drive for happiness: the psychologists, neuroscientists, medical doctors, etc.?  Or people who have conducted and/or participated in the various happiness-training programs?  Happiness and Culture would hope to hear from all of them.

 (While, for clarity and manageability, this proposal focuses primarily on the examples from contemporary American culture, we would welcome papers focusing on other cultures and on different historical periods, as well as comparative studies of two or more cultures’ understanding of happiness.) 

1 To be sure, claims that engaging in certain practices would make one happy or successful are nothing new in American culture. We have always had a robust self-improvement industry devoted to the subject, which has resulted in many bestsellers. What is new this time around is that the claims are supported by scientific research; therefore, they are acceptable to serious educational and research institutions.

2 While there has been some critical writing on American attitudes about happiness (e.g. Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich), we can definitely use more analysis, especially from the popular culture perspective.

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